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Religion Library: Protestantism


Written by: Ted Vial

A second Protestant principle is "the priesthood of all believers." Because one is saved by faith and not by performing works, even sacraments administered by the church, there is no need of priests to act as intermediaries with God. In other words, each Christian stands in a direct relationship to God and has full access to God's presence and help. In general, Protestant congregational leaders are called ministers or pastors rather than priests (Anglicans are an exception). Ministers do not have a special status with God, but they are called to the office of leadership and service because of certain talents such as preaching and pastoral care.

When Luther's theology led him to challenge the practice of selling indulgences, because that practice taught people to rely on works rather than faith, he challenged the authority (and an important money stream) of the Catholic Church. When the pope demanded that Luther submit to his authority, Luther argued that there was no authority higher than scripture. Thus, the third major Protestant principle is "scripture alone." It is this claim that scripture, not some institutional authority, has the final say that has led to the incredible variety and number of Protestant groups. Much, if not most, of the diversity within Protestantism is the result of differing interpretations or applications of the teaching of the Bible.

Reformed Christianity began in Switzerland almost simultaneously with Luther's reform in Germany. It was led by Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-1564), who agreed with Luther on most beliefs (though not, for example, on precisely what happens during the Lord's Supper). Lutheran and Reformed Christians were challenged almost immediately by the Anabaptists. Based on their reading of scripture, the Anabaptists argued that only those old enough to understand the concepts of sin and forgiveness could have faith, and so only adults should be baptized. (Believing that their own infant baptisms were not valid, they baptized each other. In the eyes of their opponents, however, this was re-baptism, which is the meaning of the moniker "Anabaptist.") Some Baptists derive from these continental Anabaptists while others derive more proximately from Puritan Calvinists in England.

In England a dispute over his desire to divorce led King Henry VIII (1491-1547) to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. His was originally a political change; he placed himself, rather than the pope, as the head of the Church in England. The early theological and liturgical shape of the Anglican church was profoundly influenced by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, and also by John Calvin. (The Puritans desired a more thorough reformation of the English Church, believing it was still too Catholic).

Study Questions:
1.     Where did the term Protestant originate? Whom does it include?
2.     Who was Martin Luther? How did his theology differ from that of Roman Catholicism?
3.     What is meant by the priesthood of believers? How did this help to challenge the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church?
4.     How did reform manifest itself outside of Luther?


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